Inflation Protection and Taxes

It’s important to understand that inflation protection is removed when taxes are applied.  Current tax rules disregard inflation, and as a result it’s easy to demonstrate that inflation can cause all of our interest on a TIPS and some of our principle to be lost through taxation alone.

When we consider our inflation adjusted returns, we can easily see that the real tax rate climbs to astronomical levels.  This simple example shows how easy it is for taxes to use up all of our real returns.

A Revealing Example

Let’s consider the effects of taxes on our inflation adjusted gains.  These adjusted gains are what finance professionals call our “real” gains.

Let’s use the actual TIPS that is being offered as I write this and our current inflation rate.  Our current inflation rate is actually 2.2% but we will use 2% make it easier and more conservative.  If you buy a \$1000, Ten year TIPS with a 0.5% interest rate and experience inflation that averages about 2% during that time, the overall real gain would be 5% over 10 years and the overall inflation adjustment if it stayed the same during that period would be 20%.

After 10 years, your principle would be adjusted to \$1,200 and you would have been paid about \$60 in interest.  The problem is that you are not taxed on the just the \$60.  The tax rules require that you be taxed on the \$60 real gain + the \$200 of principle adjustment.  If you are paying taxes at a low 15% rate, the rules say that you must pay 15% of \$260 or \$39.  Since you really only earned \$60 in real value, you will have paid 65% in taxes.

That’s a very high tax rate for sure, but look what would happen if we had an unusual amount of inflation.  This is something we need to consider because our intention is to protect ourselves from both average and unusual changes in inflation.

Let’s change the average inflation to 5%.  After 10 years, your adjusted principle would now be \$1500 and your 0.5% interest would be \$75.  Your tax on \$575 at 15% would now be \$86.25.  Since you only really earned \$75, taxes will have taken all of your real gain and forced you to take a loss of \$11.25 on top of that.  That comes out to be a real interest rate of -0.1125% and a real tax rate of 115%.

In a taxable account, the greater the inflation, the less the protection.  I can’t honestly say that it provides any protection at all because a taxable account amplifies inflation.  It is wrong to assume that our savings is inflation protected just because we hold a TIPS.

One Safe Place

If you open a tax advantaged account such as a 401k or an IRA at a brokerage that allows you to hold TIPS within it, your savings is guaranteed to be protected.  That’s because all growth in a tax advantaged account is either not taxable or tax deferred.  This means that all inflation adjustments to your TIPS principle will only be taxed once, either before you put it into a Roth IRA or 401k or after you take it out of a traditional IRA or 401k.

The combination of a tax advantaged account and TIPS is currently the only option that I am aware of that will guarantee inflation protection to a person attempting to save money in United States.

I Bonds are Only Guaranteed in Certain Cases

I Bonds are tax advantaged in that they are exempt from state and local taxes.  That makes them an even better option than other “safe” investments.  This still does not protect them from a total loss of real gains through federal taxation on inflationary gains.  There is one more advantage though.  If an I Bond is used for tuition, it is tax free and becomes a great way to save for a child’s education.

It is also possible to sell your I bonds at a time in which your taxable income is below your exemption allowance.  If your total income falls below the your permitted exemption, then your I Bonds are tax free for that year.

A Problem for All Investments

It’s very important for all investors to understand that this problem exists outside of TIPS and I Bonds.  As far as I know, all investments have the potential of losing all of their real gains through taxes that are amplified by inflation.  Here’s an explanation of the effects on capital gains:

It’s not just a problem for investors, though.   Inflationary gains are taxed in your very own bank account.  Your interest may be only \$1 per year, and you may have actually lost \$5 of purchasing power in your account.  You would think that would mean that you lost \$4 in purchasing power.  Since you pay taxes on your inflationary gain of \$1, it pushes the loss even lower than \$4.  Inflation amplifies your taxation because the more inflation there is, the more tax you pay.

If you have the ability to have 401k, I highly suggest that you do that.  IRAs only allow you to contribute \$6,000 per year for those under the age of 50 and \$7,000 per year for those over 50.  401k’s allow you to hold far more depending on your income.

If you are a high-income individual.  You currently have no guaranteed protection from inflation for savings that I know of.  It may be a good idea to consider moving your investments overseas.  There are several nations that don’t have capital gains taxes including Mexico and New Zealand.

How to Buy an I Bond

If you looking to buy an I Bond, but you’re not sure where you need to go or what you need to do, you’ve come to the right place.  Just follow these simple step-by-step instructions.  They will help you set up your TreasuryDirect.gov account and buy your first I Bond.  If you have a printer, you may want to print these instructions so that you don’t have to go back and forth between these instructions and TreasuryDirect.

This could take 15 – 30 minutes.  It’s good to take your time.  There’s no reason to hurry.  I suggest doing this on a computer, not a cell phone because you may be asked to allow your computer to use “Flash.” One of the demos provided at TresuryDirect uses Flash and should work fine on IE, Edge, Firefox and Chrome  browsers.

If you are wondering why you would want to buy an I bond, please read the articles: “I Just Want to Save My Money!” and “Why Bonds are Smart for Savings“.

You need to be a “U. S. Person” and have a Social Security Number in order to buy U. S. savings bonds.  It’s one of the special privileges you have just for being a United States citizen.

You will need an address in the United States if you want to participate in buying I Bonds directly from the government, so have that ready too.

You will need to have a checking or savings account so that you have a way to pay for your I Bond.  You can’t pay with a credit card but it’s ok if you don’t have paper checks.  You just need to call your credit union or bank and get your checking account’s routing number and account number so you can pay Treasury Direct with electronic checks.

Like most online services these days, you will need to provide Treasury Direct with a valid email address.  They intend to contact you electronically with information about your account.

You have to have a computer with a browser that can create a private line to Treasury Direct.  Pretty much all computers for the last ten years have been able to do this.  The computer you are using to read this should work as long as it is a private one.  It’s probably not a good idea to do your finances on a public computer.

Step 2: Take the Guided Tour at TreasuryDirect.gov

Although this government site has its own oddities, they’ve done a great job of holding your hand through the process of setting up your account.  You and anyone in your household that has a Social Security Number is entitled to have a free account directly with the United States Treasury.  They have a pretty nice “Guided Tour” that shows you the steps that you will go through when you set up your account.  Here it is:

TreasuryDirect.gov’s Guided Tour

If you need to type the address in, here it is:

https://www.treasurydirect.gov/indiv/TDTour/default.htm

Step 3: Complete the Application Process at TreasuryDirect.gov

The application process will allow you to set up your TreasuryDirect.gov account by entering the information that you have collected.

From the Guided Tour page, you can find the application link in the upper-right corner of the page.  It’s called “OPEN YOUR ACCOUNT NOW“.  At the time that I write this, the letters are pretty small but they are all orange.

f you are on the Treasury Direct starting page, you will find the place to open the account underneath the orange login button.  Just click on the words: “Open an Account

Make sure that you record:

3. The answers to your security questions (they will ask them sometimes and it will lock you out if you don’t answer them correctly)

It’s a good idea not to save these things on any computer or cell phone.  You might consider writing these down and saving them with other vital records and information you keep.   Physically locking the information in a safe would be one good idea.

Step 4: Watch the Accessing Your TreasuryDirect Account Demo

The TreasuryDirect site has quite a few security features.  It’s a good thing but it also makes it a bit harder to use.  I highly suggest that you watch the Flash Demo that they have created at the TreasuryDirect.gov site.  You can click on the graphic on the right or  click here.  Make sure that you say “yes” if your browser asks if you want to us “Flash”.

Here’s the address if you need to type it in:

https://www.treasurydirect.gov/indiv/myaccount/myaccount_demo.htm

To log in, locate the “Account Login” section in the upper right corner of the TreasuryDirect.gov website.

Select the “TreasuryDirect” link in that section. On the next page, select the orange “LOGIN” button.

If this is the first time that you have logged in, you may be asked to check your email for a special passcode.  This is a security protection to make sure that it is really you.  You must enter that code that you get from your email.  You can choose the option to allow TresuryDirect to remember your browser.  That way you won’t have to get special codes in your email every time you attempt to log in.

On the next screen you must enter your new Account Number.  That’s not the passcode.  That’s the one that you used when you first applied in step two above.  After typing in your account number, hit the “submit” button.

You will then be taken to a screen that allows you to choose an image and a phrase.   This might seem a bit silly, but it is actually a good security method.  TreasuryDirect will show you this picture and phrase every time you log in.  It’s a way for you to know you are actually accessing TreasuryDirect and not a fake.

If that image is ever not the one you remember. It’s a good idea to close your browser and contact TreasuryDirect by phone and tell them that something is wrong before going on.  All these things are there to make sure that you are protected and that’s a good thing.

After you hit the “submit” button, the weirdness is pretty much over.  You will now be signed into TreasuryDirect.  You should see a welcome message with your name at the top of the screen.

One other strange thing to keep in mind about the TreasuryDirect website: Don’t try to use your “back” button in the browser.  That will force you out, requiring you to log in.  TreasuryDirect will only allow you to use the buttons on the page to navigate.  All these things help the web site give you a very secure environment.

I did find some graphical instructions at WikiHow that may also be very helpful.

Now for the fun part.  We are finally to the point at which you can buy your first I Bond.

Now that you have logged into your account, you will need to click on the button at the top called: Buy Direct

You will then see a list of options of things you can buy.  In the list you will see an option for “Series I – An accrual-type security with a combination interest rate of a fixed and an inflation rate”

Select that option and Hit the blue Submit button.

You will a place to enter your “Purchase Amount“.  Enter the bond amount here.  You can have a bond as low as \$25 and if this is the only bond you plan on buying this year, you should be able to have one for as high as \$10,000.  I haven’t tried that before but it should work as long as you have the money.  Make sure that the “Select a source of funds” drop-down box shows your checking account and then hit the “Submit” button.

That’s it.  When you log back into TreasuryDirect, you will be able to check up on your I Bond and see its current value.  This is also the place to go when you are ready to sell your bond.  You can’t do that for the first year, because that’s one of the rules.  It’s best to hold on to your bond for five years so that you get all the interest.

You can also buy other kinds of treasury investments this way including TIPS.  That’s all it takes to take advantage of one of the safest and most effective ways to save for your future.

Why Bonds are Smart for Savings

Bonds are one of the easiest and most common ways to save money for the long term.  There’s a good chance you already own one.  If you have a certificate of deposit at your bank or your credit union, you own a kind of a bond.  CD’s are quite a bit different than other kinds of bonds, but they have many things in common.

Rather than going over different kinds of bonds, I’d like to explain why  they are a good investment for those of us saving for future needs.  In a previous article, I described two ways of looking at our investments.  Bonds are very useful for the part of our savings that we intend to preserve.

Bonds Eliminate Timing Risk

I mentioned back in my introduction to TIPS that bonds are actually a  type of loan.  CD’s are loans that you make to the bank.  If you ever wondered how to turn the tables on a bank and get them to pay you interest, that’s how.  If you have had a CD before, you know that it has an end date.  That’s how bonds work.  They “mature.”  When they do, you get your money back.

Because bonds have a due date, they are great for eliminating timing risk.  Bonds come with a promise to return your money on a specific day.  If you intend to go on a big vacation in two years, you can get a two year CD at the bank and earn higher interest than you would in a regular savings or checking account.  When the CD matures, you get your money back and all the interest right when you need it.

You can imagine what might happen if you put that money in a mutual fund for two years.  If you happen to have planned your vacation during the next stock market crash, you probably would have to change your plans.  It might be ok to miss your vacation, but putting off your retirement because you took that risk would probably be a bigger deal.

Certificates of Deposit and Inflation

Taking out a two year CD might not be that bad.  At the time I write this, CD rates are still quite a bit lower than the rate of inflation.  When that is true, you end up paying the bank to hold and protect your money.  That’s not always a bad idea.  Putting all that money in your house might be worse, but it sure would be nice to be able to keep up with inflation don’t you think?

I Bonds vs. CD’s

You might consider I Bonds for a two year holding time or more.  You can’t take your money out for the first year, so if you need the money sooner than that, it wouldn’t be a good idea.  If you need the money in less than five years, it would still be a pretty good idea to put your money in an I Bond because it protects your purchasing power at the cost of losing three months of interest.  It’s still better than most bank CDs at the time that I write this.  After five years of waiting, you can take the money out any time.  If you have more than 30 years to wait, you will have to sell your bond in thirty years and get a new one.  You can find out more about I Bonds in another article.

The advantage of using an I Bond over a CD is that you are more certain to keep up with inflation.  There are CD’s that allow you to “step up” your interest rate if the interest rates go up at some point.  The problem with that is that interest rates and inflation are not really linked.  The will of the government is in between.   Governments occasionally force interest rates lower as a way to “fix” the economy.  As a result, CD’s have proven to not be a very precise way to protect your money’s purchasing power.

You may have seen an article or heard someone at your bank talk about putting some money in a CD ladder.  This arrangement helps you take advantage of changes in interest rates over time.  It’s another way to attempt to deal with inflation issues as well.

The idea is that you split up your money, and buy CD’s or bonds with different maturity dates.  For instance you might buy one for six months, another for one year and another for two years.  The idea being that every six months you would have a CD coming due.  When it does, it allows you choose whether you need to use some of the money or put it back into another CD.  It also allows you to take advantage of changes in the interest rates as they go up.

When you are trying to save your money for later, bond ladders have much different purpose.  When you are using inflation protected bonds like I Bonds or TIPS you don’t really have to worry about the interest rates.  Remember that taking advantage of rising interest rates is the kind of thing we do with the part of our money set aside for opportunity investing.  When we are dealing with the preservation side, what we concern ourselves with is timing.  We just need to ask ourselves: When do I need this money?  In this case, we would use a ladder to put the right amount of money in the right place in the future to meet our needs.

Here’s an example.  Suppose you need your money in 15 years.  It may require that you take out a ten year TIPS, and after 10 years you need to remember to buy another 5 year TIPS when it matures.  You can think of your needs like buckets of money.  Let’s say that you have one bucket for each year during your retirement.  You need a ladder of bonds that reach to each bucket in order to fill them with the right amount of money so that you meet all of your needs.

Beware of Bond Mutual Funds

Bond mutual funds don’t have a maturity date.  Shorter duration funds may be safer than stock funds, but they are definitely more risky than just owning the bonds.  That’s because the fund share prices change every day based on market forces, not inflation.  I plan to explain that more in an article about mutual funds.

A Smart Way to Plan

Bonds are a great way to plan because they are based on time commitments.  Not everything in life can be planned, but for things that need to be, it really makes sense to use investments that have commitments built into them so that you can be sure to have money when you need it.